Before we left home, I had a long conversation with Zayd, our nine year old. I explained to him that we were going to Staples to shop for school supplies for underprivileged children in our community. I asked him gently to please not ask for anything for himself, that this trip was about doing something good for someone else. I reminded Zayd that I had already ordered his school supplies and that he would find them sitting on his desk on the first day of school.
And of course I pointed out that he really didn’t need any more pens or pencils – every drawer in our house is overflowing with them.
So what happens within the first minute of walking into Staples? “Mama, pleeeeezzz, I really need the mechanical pencils with the extra thick lead that never break!” Deep breath.
How do we explain to our children to not covet, everything, all the time? How do we teach them that most of the children in the world have far less, and are far more content? How do we encourage them to value what that they have, and instill in them a spirit of giving to others, rather than amassing for themselves?
I have no idea.
But I did gain some insight on a recent service trip to El Salvador organized by a non-profit organization called MoverMoms. The NGO, founded by my best friend Rebecca, aims to make it easy for busy families to get involved in community service, by finding unique opportunities and making all the arrangements, even planning carpools. Moms and kids just need to show up and serve, when they can.
This summer we planned our first international service trip to Morazan, the most destitute part of El Salvador, to volunteer at a maternity center and an elementary school. For many of our kids, it was their first experience with a majority world culture beyond the beaches and boardwalks. It wasn’t always easy – geckos hiding behind bathroom doors, rooster wake-up calls at 4 am, and unusual tastes of a new cuisine took some getting used to.
We asked our children to share something with the kids at the school. Zayd was nervous. “What can I show them, mama? How will I talk to them?” He decided to do what he loves — make paper airplanes. One afternoon, a group of 20 boys and girls encircled him, watching him intently as he began his demonstration. He would fold one side of the paper and hold it up. The kids followed; he’d smile and nod si. Then he would neatly fold the other; si. And so on. When they all ran onto the blacktop to test out their planes, a proud smile stretched across Zayd’s face. Other kids taught gimp and dance, played jump rope and basketball, and made cards and crafts. With their new found friends, they played games in fields of banana and coffee trees, hiked holding hands, swam and splashed in waterfalls, and said tearful, hug filled goodbyes.
I’m not sure if my kids’ wants have lessened, but I do think they’ve come a little closer to understanding just how fortunate they are, and how important it is to know and care about how the majority of the world lives. In our house now, I simply say “Irvin,” and they immediately straighten up a bit. Irvin is the sweet, quiet boy, about 10, whose family we visited. He gets up at 4:30 every morning, has a cold bucket bath outside his two room adobe house, walks an hour to catch a bus to reach school by 7:30am; and the next morning he does it all over again. And as for Zayd, I think he realized just how far a si and a smile can go.
Salma Hasan Ali is a writer, storyteller and the CIO, Chief Inspiration Officer, of MoverMoms.